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Co-opetition: Rival Concrete Precasters Team Up On New Innovations

Piedmont Central Student Housing and Dining Hall at Georgia State University, Atlanta, uses innovative precast concrete exterior walls with carbon fiber grid, a technology refined collaboratively by the precasters of AltusGroup. Image courtesy AltusGroup

Concrete precasting is a unique business. Because of the large initial capital investment required, the engineered nature of the product, and the high cost of transportation due to the weight of concrete products, individual companies tend to be regional and have limited overlapping geographic customer areas. When there is more than one precaster in a region, competition can be intense. As a result, there’s not much widespread competition among precasters. There’s also minimal game-changing innovation work being done by each individual firm, because the high costs involved are tough to justify across a fairly limited base of sales.

To overcome these challenges, in the late 1990s TechFab, LLC, and Oldcastle Precast formed a partnership. They sponsored jointly-funded research that pioneered the use of fiber mesh reinforcement in precast panels to make them stronger and lighter. They conducted formative R&D into the early 2000s, starting with fiberglass and eventually developing breakthrough C-GRID carbon fiber grid technology.

Carbon fiber grid is placed to connect the inside and outside wythes (or layers) of concrete in CarbonCast High Performance Insulated Wall Panels. Image courtesy AltusGroup

It was around then that Tom Conroy of Oldcastle read an article about co-opetition. The concept, big among European companies at the time and eventually practiced widely in Silicon Valley, is one in which competing companies find common causes in which they cooperate with funding and staffing. Conroy sent the article to John Carson, Director of Commercial Development at TechFab.

The idea took hold. “Both partners invested heavily in the carbon fiber technology,” Carson said. “Bringing in other partners made sense, dollar-wise.” In 2003, five precasters and TechFab teamed up to form AltusGroup, a joint effort to accelerate new product development and commercialization in the precast industry. The group now boasts 18 member companies.

Tom Kelley is President and CEO of Gage Brothers, an architectural and structural precast manufacturer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Kelley, a 38-year veteran of the industry, sees distinct advantages from its membership in AltusGroup. “It’s a unique organization from a number of perspectives,” he explained. “We’re all members of the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI). But it’s got a larger bureaucracy, so the engine grinds more slowly. AltusGroup has hand-selected partners – they’re the cream of the crop, both the companies and the individuals. They can move the ball down the field.”

Greg Kerkstra agrees. In 2002 he bought out the firm his father had established back in 1962, Kerkstra in Grandville, Michigan, which offers complete precast concrete building solutions, including residential, industrial, warehousing, and parking. He also sees tremendous benefits from his company’s membership in AltusGroup. “It’s one of the most innovative groups around, using chemistry to make things lighter, stronger, and more durable,” he said. “The carbon fiber reinforcement allowed us to thin up our building faces, making them lighter, and it can also hold insulating sandwich construction together. It’s improved energy efficiency too – the steel that used to be there caused hot and cold spots. Carbon fiber makes the insulation uniform all the way across the panel. That makes it easier to meet new code requirements.”

Increased insulating qualities have been a focus for AltusGroup for years, as have corrosion and crack control, durability, and weight savings. Recently, the group introduced the ARCIS panel, an ultra-thin and ultra-light rain screen panel for building exteriors.

Graphic Concrete (panels with patterns or images imparted in the surface) is another new product introduced to North America by AltusGroup that Kerksta appreciates. “It’s incredible, what we can do with that,” he said. “Europe is really taking advantage of this, and it’s just hitting the market here. It’s going to be big – I don’t think there’s anything more durable."

AltusGroup members have introduced Graphic Concrete to North America. The attractive walls on the Murphysboro (Illinois) High School's new Performing Arts Center showcase the technology's ability to deliver permanent images on precast concrete. Photo: Jacia Phillips

The collaborative nature of the group brings its members together productively. “AltusGroup creates a safe place to innovate, to grow the market,” Kerkstra said.

The need for innovation isn’t ending anytime soon, so AltusGroup’s future looks secure – if a bit challenging. “There’s ongoing codification of more stringent regulatory requirements,” said Carson. “Labor is another tremendous issue. We’re looking at modular construction to help with speed of projects. Eliminating the need for skilled tradesmen on the job site is a focus, and so is automation.”

Ultra-high-strength concrete is another opportunity. “Concrete today is in the range from 5,000 to 10,000 psi [pounds per square inch],” said Kelley. “There’s current research that explores concrete in the 20,000 to 22,000 psi range – that’s in the strength category of steel.”

Concrete 3-D printing is another area of innovation. “3-D printing is coming,” Kelley said. But it may not be like the videos of houses being printed everyone has seen on YouTube. “3-D printing of concrete molds is a unique opportunity,” said Kelley. “You can make them smoother for better concrete flow, and you can make custom shapes.” Kerkstra agreed. “3-D printing of unique form shapes has lots of things starting to happen,” he said. “With woodworker craftsmen going away, 3-D printed form shapes can take over some of what they’ve done.”

Further efforts to reduce the need for labor at the jobsite is also an area of focus. “We’re looking at a partnership with a large-scale window manufacturer to pre-install windows in concrete panels before they ship,” said Kerkstra. “This will help with the lack of available jobsite labor, which has construction prices out of control.” There are numerous other prefabrication opportunities, including complete prefabricated rooms, including lighting and fixtures. Kerkstra sees tremendous growth potential. “Precast is still a small share of the construction market,” he said. “Innovation helps grow that market, and helps educate people about us.”

Carson is happy with what AltusGroup has done for the industry. “I’m extremely proud of it,” he said. “Our members probably have $2 billion in sales. We have a big footprint, and we speak with a unified voice. We’ve been able to expand the range of business for our partner companies. A rising tide lifts all boats. We’ve increased the market share for our systems.”

Kelley echoes that. “This is a vehicle that will make it possible to accelerate the pace of change,” he said. “In this case, one plus one is definitely greater than two.”

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